In a heartbreaking testimony heard by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, a Canadian woman explained how she was forced to surrender her baby for adoption in post-war Canada.

“The social worker stood in front of me. Coldly, she said, ‘You will never see your baby again as long as you live,’” Sandra Jarvie is quoted as saying in a new report on post-war adoption practices. “‘If you search for the baby, you’ll destroy his life and the lives of the adoptive parents.’”

On Thursday, the committee released a report titled “The Shame Is Ours” detailing Canada’s post-Second World War adoption mandate. It is estimated that more than 350,000 mothers were affected by agency policies and the “common practice” of forcing unwed mothers into maternity homes and coercing them to give up their babies.

In a press conference Thursday, committee chair Art Eggleton called it “another Scoop,” referring to the Sixties Scoop in which Indigenous children were separated from their parents. Eggleton said that nearly 600,000 infants were born to unwed mothers and recorded as “illegitimate births” between 1945 and 1971, though the committee does not know the exact number of forced adoptions due to “prevailing secrecy.” Some of the institutions that carried out the policies no longer exist. But the committee heard evidence during hearings that as many as 95 per cent of unwed mothers in maternity homes surrendered their babies to adoption, compared to two per cent today.

“It has led to lasting and life-altering psychological distress for both the mothers and adoptees,” said Eggleton.

The new report calls the decades of forced adoption a “shameful period in Canada’s history, when human rights may have been violated and, if no laws were broken, certainly the forced adoption policy for unmarried mothers was unethical.”

During March hearings, the committee heard from witnesses whose stories in Canadian maternity homes date back more than 50 years. One woman described her life as a “silent hell.” Another said her daughter was taken from her at birth while she was sedated. She said she was forced to sign adoption documents and was told the police would be called if she resisted.

“Once their experiences at the maternity home came to an end, the mothers were told never to speak about it again,” said Eggleton. “Some were told to get a puppy as if that would fill the void of a child taken away from its mother.”

The “social context” of the decades following the Second World War in which society regarded the “traditional nuclear family” as the ideal and scorned unmarried women and the “illegitimacy” of their children played a role in the adoption mandate, the committee found.

But that doesn’t justify the practice, said Valerie Andrews, director of non-profit group Origins Canada, during the press conference.

“Some Canadians might say, ‘Well, those were the times,’” she said. “The brutal and inhumane policies and practices perpetrated against the unmarried mother and her child in Canada cannot be diminished or erased through the implication that they were norms and mores of society at the time. To suggest so subjugates, devalues and silences those affected.”

The committee recommends that the government issue a formal apology to victims, establish an advisory group for the apology, provide consultation services to mothers and adoptees, and that governments across the country should discuss legislation about access to adoption files.